Pregnant Again

family portrait

How Superfetation Works: “An Indonesian woman gave birth to a 19-lb. 2-oz. baby behemoth on Sept. 24, but that was only the second weirdest pregnancy tale of the month. The strangest belongs to Julia Grovenburg, a 31-year-old Arkansas woman who has a double pregnancy. No, not twins — Grovenburg became pregnant twice, two weeks apart. Isn’t that supposed to be impossible?

Almost. There have been only 10 recorded cases of the phenomenon, dubbed superfetation. In Grovenburg’s case, she became pregnant first with a girl (whom she has decided to name Jillian) and then two weeks later with a boy (Hudson). The babies have separate due dates — Jillian on Dec. 24, Hudson on Jan. 10. (TIME)

Thinking literally

Amelia Bedelia

The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world: “Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us. The result has been a torrent of research testing the links between metaphors and their physical roots, with many of the papers reading as if they were commissioned by Amelia Bedelia, the implacably literal-minded children’s book hero. Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how “warm” or “cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how “weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.” (Boston Globe)

Left brain, right brain

Human and gorilla skeleton

Interesting piece in Prospect by Matthew Taylor about how neuroscientific advances should inform political theory and help take us, as the cliche goes, “beyond left and right.” It makes sense when you think about it, as political debates usually come down to competing notions about human nature.

“Altruism makes us happy. Supportive communities create better people. Inequality and stigma rob us of potential. Good guidance helps us make wise decisions for the long term. All these seem commonsense conclusions, all are now based on evidence. They break the oppressive grip of Homo economicus on the right and the alluring but dangerous myth of human perfectibility on the left. Instead, we are left with the mission of progressive humanism; to develop practical utopias based on the good enough people we really are.”

Traumatic head injury: prescribe vodka?

“You could probably figure out the topic despite the medicalese in the title: “Positive Serum Ethanol Level and Mortality in Moderate to Severe Traumatic Brain Injury.” The study is a retrospective one, based on identifying a set of patients in trauma centers who had been diagnosed with severe brain injuries. Not surprisingly, a number of them had been drinking. The surprise was that the folks with alcohol in the bloodstream had a better survival rate than those who hadn't had a drink, even after correcting for some potential confounding factors. As always, further studies are suggested before we start dispensing vodka shots in the ER.” (Ars Technica)

Cryptozoo Museum Opens In Downtown Portland

Loren Coleman: “It’s taken six years, but as of November 1, 2009, the International Cryptozoology Museum will publicly open in a permanent space in downtown Portland, Maine. The three year lease is signed, the fund-raising can begin in earnest, …and the doors are happily being flung open to a new dawn for the world’s only fully public cryptozoology museum…

After first being established in August 2003 via my modest home-based cabinet-of-curiosities in the Libbytown section of the Pine Tree State’s largest city, the International Cryptozoology Museum will have its grand public opening right after Halloween 2009, in downtown Portland, Maine.The museum has found a public home at 661 Congress Street, in the Arts District, just down the street from the world-famous Portland Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, and the State Theater, next to a local landmark, Joe’s Smoke Shop. Also, it will sit right across from The Fun Box Monster Emporium. What a wonderful neighborhood for a cryptozoology museum!” (Cryptomundo)

Max Planck Institute Researcher Proposes Schrodinger’s Cat Experiment

“One of the classical problems in quantum mechanics concerns a man and his feline companion. The man has placed his cat in an opaque tank and is slowing pumping it full of poison. Now until the man opens the tank and looks inside, he cannot be sure whether the cat is dead or alive. That is to say, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. Impossible but such is the nature of the problem that faced this man. The man’s name is Erwin Schrodinger and the problem is that of his Uncertainty Principle.

For nearly a century, his problem has remained a quixotic quest for physicists. Particle physics has always held that matter can only exist at one state in one time. That is why particles are classified as moving with an up or down spin but nothing in between. In recent years that rule has been bent with the superposition of atoms and other nonliving things. Superposition is the term for an object that is not being observed that exists as both possibilities: up and down, dead and alive. This allows physicists to observe the matter in two different states at the same time. However, thus far it has only been done with non-living things. A life-form has never been superimposed. Now, one physicist says he may have an answer.

Oriol Romero-Isart is at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Physics in Garching in Germany. Along with his team he is proposing a “Schrodinger’s virus” experiment that would follow the same general principles of Schrodinger’s Cat. Using an electromagnetic field created by a laser, the virus would be trapped in a vacuum. Then, using another laser, the virus will be slowed down until it lies motionless in its lowest possible energy state.

Now that the virus is fixed, a single photon is used to put the virus into a superposition of two states, moving and non-moving. Up until the point is measured it is in both states. Only after a measurement is it found to be in one state and one alone. The team has suggested that the tobacco mosaic virus be used. The virus is rod-shaped and measures 50 nanometers wide and approximately 1 micrometer long. There is debate however, whether the virus can truly be classified as “alive.” However the scientists are confident that the treatment could be extended to tiny micro-organisms such as tardigrades who can survive in vacuum for days, making them suitable for the “Schrodinger treatment.”

However, physicists are doubtful about the experiment’s results. Martin Plenio of Imperial College in London says that there is little reason that a virus would behave any differently than a similarly-sized inanimate object. However, there are possibilities in testing large objects such as viruses and molecules. This is because quantum mechanics says that macroscopic objects can enter superposition however, it has never happened. Through these studies, Plenio believes that we will finally be able to bridge the divide between the quantum world and our own macroscopic world.”

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The McFarthest Place

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24:  A McDonald's resta...

“There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the US, or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the US geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s (*). If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac…” (Strange Maps)

I would like to see an overlay of several maps of this sort, one for each of the major fast food places, one for Walmarts, etc. The cumulative effect, I suspect, would correlate quite well with the quality of life to be expected in various locales.

British Airways adds a “fly next to your children” fee

British Airways Boeing 767, featuring "De...

Cory Doctorow: “British Airways has broken new exciting new ground in the race to make flying as awful as possible: they have announced a fee (ranging from £10-60 per passenger) for advance seat selection, explaining that this will be the only way that families and other groups travelling together can be assured that they’ll be sitting next to each other. I wonder what happens if you don’t pay it while flying with a two-year-old in her own seat; do they seat her at the other end of the plane from you and explain to the strangers on either side of her that they’re responsible for her well-being for the duration? …” (Boing Boing)

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U.S. scientists net Architeuthis in Gulf of Mexico

Giant squid, Architeuthis sp., modified from a...

‘U.S. scientists in the Gulf of Mexico unexpectedly netted a 19.5-foot (5.9-meter) giant squid off the coast of Louisiana, the Interior Department said on Monday, showing how little is known about life in the deep waters of the Gulf.

Not since 1954, when a giant squid was found floating dead off the Mississippi Delta, has the rare species been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico.

Giant squid, which can be 40 feet long, are usually found in deep-water fisheries, such as off Spain and New Zealand.

“This is the first time one has actually been captured during scientific research in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.’ (Reuters)

Don’t mess with them: “Is there any doubt that the scariest animal in the world is the giant squid? Just its name paralyzes my heart with fear in a way that “killer whale” or “jumbo shrimp” do not. Most of us first caught a glimpse of this denizen of the deep trying to kill Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and we all had the same question: How angry do you have to be to try to kill the recipient of an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement? The answer was instantly branded onto all of our brains: as angry as a giant squid.

The giant squid is an “eat the crew, ask questions later” kind of cephalopod, and motion pictures have rightly depicted it as a very angry animal that’s not given to conversation. To see a giant squid is to be attacked by a giant squid, the saying goes. But, like Tom Cruise between movies, the giant squid is camera-shy. And, just like the diminutive actor, Architeuthis dux spends long periods lurking out of sight, surely up to no good, before bursting forth, tentacles flailing, and exercising its alternate belief system. In Mr. Cruise’s case, the alternate belief system is Scientology. In the giant squid’s case, the alternate belief system is a desire to wrap you in its horrible tentacles and poke you to death with its poisonous beak. There are similarities. Leave giant squid alone.” — Grady Hendrix (Slate)

America’s Food Revolution

Burger with Foie Gras and Onion

“Just try having a dinner party today. You’ll have to contend with perfervid vegans, virtuous vegetarians, persistent pescatarians, lamb-phobics, tongue-phobics, veal-rights advocates, the gluten-intolerant, the lactose-intolerant, the shellfish-intolerant, the peanut-intolerant, the spicy-intolerant, and on and on in an ever-fragmenting array. For God’s sake, don’t serve foie gras; a guest might show up wearing a suicide vest and blow the whole party to kingdom come. All this has a lot to do with the decline of traditional manners and the rise of personal assertiveness and the yuppie belief that we can engineer our own immortality. Food matters so much now that it can make tyrants of our dearest friends and neighbors.” (City Journal)

Absurdist Literature Stimulates Our Brains

“Absurdist literature, it appears, stimulates our brains. That's the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science. Psychologists Travis Proulx of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia report our ability to find patterns is stimulated when we are faced with the task of making sense of an absurd tale. What's more, this heightened capability carries over to unrelated tasks.” (Miller-McCune Online Magazine)

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“This site is dedicated to documenting various abandoned places through both text and photographs; recording their transformations through time before they are demolished. The abundance of abandoned asylums and psychiatric hospitals in the New England area create the bulk of the locations here; these beautiful state funded structures are vast and complex, giving insight to both the humanity and mistreatment towards the mentally ill over the past two centuries.

In the past few years, there has been a surge of redevelopment projects for these places, and states have been lowering land prices and pushing for bids to buy. Soon, all of these beautiful structures will fall down to meet their fate of becoming golf courses, condos and strip malls.”

During my psychiatric career, I have worked at several of these now abandoned or demolished-and-redeveloped sites, including Metropolitan State Hospital, Boston State Hospital and Worcester State Hospital. I routinely pass the sites of MSH and BSH. I can’t say that I have ever been back inside in an ‘unofficial’ capacity since their closures, although I am tempted.

The Holy Grail of the Unconscious

“Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it.

Of those who did see it, at least one person, an educated Englishwoman who was allowed to read some of the book in the 1920s, thought it held infinite wisdom — “There are people in my country who would read it from cover to cover without stopping to breathe scarcely,” she wrote — while another, a well-known literary type who glimpsed it shortly after, deemed it both fascinating and worrisome, concluding that it was the work of a psychotic.” (New York Times Magazine)

R.I.P. Mary Travers

The folksinger, one third of Peter, Paul and Mary, has died after a battle with leukaemia, aged 72. Travers was an outspoken supporter of the civil rights and anti-war movements. “I am deadened and heartsick beyond words to consider a life without Mary Travers and honoured beyond my wildest dreams to have shared her spirit and her career,” Noel “Paul” Stookey said. (BBC obituary).

Scary Music Is Scarier With Your Eyes Shut

18F PET scan shows decreased dopamine activity...

“The power of the imagination is well-known: it’s no surprise that scary music is scarier with your eyes closed. But now neuroscientist and psychiatrist Prof. Talma Hendler of Tel Aviv University’s Functional Brain Center says that this phenomenon may open the door to a new way of treating people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.” (Science Daily)

The Problem with Conditional Love

Alfie Kohn: “…(It may be that) the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, (therapist Carl) Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

But was Rogers right? Before we toss out mainstream discipline, it would be nice to have some evidence. And now we do.

In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.

It turned out that children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed…” (New York Times )

R.I.P. Jim Carroll

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Poet and Punk Rocker Who Wrote ‘The Basketball Diaries’ Dies at 60: “As a teenage basketball star in the 1960s at Trinity, an elite private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Carroll led a chaotic life that combined sports, drugs and poetry. This highly unusual combination lent a lurid appeal to “The Basketball Diaries,” the journal he kept during high school and published in 1978, by which time his poetry had already won him a cult reputation as the new Bob Dylan.” (New York Times obituary)

Even when I didn’t listen to punk, ‘People Who Died’ was in my regulsr rotation. Time to punch it up on the iPod and add one more name to the list…

From ‘Bowling Alone’ to Diverse and Alone

‘It got nowhere near the publicity and caused nowhere near the stir of his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” about Americans’ increasing social isolation. But more recent work by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam is perhaps more controversial: his finding (2007 lecture here) that ethnic diversity isn’t an unqualified good — that diversity, “at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us,” as we withdraw from collective life, hunker down in front of the TV and distrust people around us, regardless of skin color.’ (New York Times )

New Theory Nixes “Dark Energy”

Urbi et Orbi (EP) album cover

Is Time Disappearing from the Universe? “Remember a little thing called the space-time continuum? Well what if the time part of the equation was literally running out? New evidence is suggesting that time is slowly disappearing from our universe, and will one day vanish completely. This radical new theory may explain a cosmological mystery that has baffled scientists for years.” (Daily Galaxy)

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Why Are Placebos Getting More Effective?

Drugmakers Are Desperate to Find Out.. I became a web friend of Wired writer Steve Silberman because of the uncanny parallelism in our interests, and I usually post blinks to his thoughtful and important pieces. Here, he describes the difficulty drug manufacturers are having in distinguishing the efficacy of medications they are testing from that of the placebos to which they are compared. Perhaps surprisingly, the rates of placebo response seem to be growing, so that the claims for pharmacological effectiveness of their products are harder and harder to make. Big Pharma desperately wants to know why, both to succeed again in establishing the efficacy of the products they are developing and to capitalize on the placebo effect if they can find a way to bring it to market itself.

As Silberman describes, comparison with placebo has long been the gold standard in evaluation of drug efficacy. This has largely made the placebo effect a troublesome enemy of allopathic medicine. This is a weakness of those with a concrete, limited conception of how healing works. In fact, our understanding should be stood on its head. Instead of being a nuisance, the placebo effect may be the basis of most therapeutic effects, both in particular of the ‘magic pills’ we physicians give our patients and, more generally, of the healing relationship per se. I have long found it pitiful that most physicians do not see that much of what they are doing is mobilizing their patients’ intrinsic healing responses through enlisting them in a shared belief system. Of course, those healing responses have a physiological basis themselves. It is only the incredibly naive, for the past thirty or fifty years at least, who still must distinguish ‘mind’ from ‘body’ as if they are separate.

The placebo response may be getting stronger, if indeed it is, because it is more and more difficult to find subjects who are not in the grip of the Big Pharma Big Lie, in this era of TV advertising for prescription drugs and of physicians in the pockets of the manufacturers of the medications they prescribe.

The other reason it may be harder to distinguish pharmacological from palcebo effects is that drug development in the last decade or more has been largely a story of trying to squeeze larger and larger profits out of smaller and smaller distinctions in drug efficacy. There have been relatively few ‘breakthrough’ discoveries in pharmacology that have not been swamped by a rush of competing products consisting of slightly altered molecules claiming to be improvements but in reality serving only to establish or extend patent rights.

This is especially true in my own field of psychiatry. While there are certainly in some cases differences in individual patients’ responses to different medicines in the same class (say, for example, serotonin-reuptake-inhibiting antidepressants or dopamine-blocking antipsychotics). Prescribers, pitifully, trot out one after another drug in the same or similar class when a patient does not do well with an initial choice of medication, subjecting the patient to a futile and prolonged cycle of sequential expectation and disappointment. Even patients who are doing well on a medicatioon are often switched to far more expensive newer analogues which hit the market claiming to be improvements. And these claims are largely written by the ad copyists and marketing specialists rather than the scientists, who by and large cannot demonstrate advantages of their products in head-to-head comparisons with older, tried-and-true gold standard medications.

Finally, although I am not talking merely about the mental health domain when I argue for a broadened conception of how healing works, it is surely true that neurobiological and mental disorders have been one of the last frontiers in pharmaceutical development, and (along with a shift of emphasis to chronic diseases from the acute diseases with which medicine has had its greatest successes) a major focus in drug development in the last two decades or so. The placebo effect is probably at its strongest in the realm of behavioral disorders.

Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

Over and above all the reasons to oppose the execution of guilty offenders, surely the most compelling argument against the death penalty is the possibility likelihood of executing those who are innocent. How much evidence would it take to sway you, if the prospect does not already give you pause? Take a look at David Grann’s examination of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, put to death after convicted of setting the house fire that killed his two children largely as a result of forensic conclusions which, in the opinion of a number of experts on the investigation of arson, had no credibility. (The New Yorker)

The Teen Brain: The More Mature, the More Reckless

Do you find my brain? - Auf der Suche nach mei...

This blink was sent to me by my son: Hidden agenda, d’you think?

“The most common-sense explanation for teens’ carelessness is that their brains just aren’t developed enough to know better. But new research suggests that in the case of some teens, the culprit is just the opposite: the brain matures not too slowly but, perhaps, too quickly.

In a paper just published in PLoS ONE — a journal of the Public Library of Science — a team led by psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta shows that adolescents who engage in more dangerous activities have white-matter pathways that appear more mature than those of risk-averse youths.” (Time) via noah

Cheney in ’12? Some in GOP are seriously considering…

Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Virginia Foxx
‘At first, it seemed like a joke. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto opined on Monday that — if the 2012 election were to turn to national security — “it’s hard to think of a better candidate… than Richard B. Cheney.”

But while his headline — “Cheney for President” — provoked guffaws in some quarters, several of the party’s most well-regarded strategists and pollsters are actually taking the idea deadly seriously.

“The Republican Party needs to move forward and build on its past, not return to it,” Alex Castellanos, a frequent CNN analyst and GOP messaging guru, told the Huffington Post via email. “But if the agenda turns to security, Obama is mired in a no-win mess in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration hasn’t created a single job in four years after indebting the nation for generations, maybe Dick Cheney could run on a theme of ‘Change’.” ‘ (Huffington Post)

If this gains enough traction, it would be time to start making emigration plans. And you are laughably mistaken if you assume that the American people would never find the idea appealing enough to make his chances realistic.